Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reflections on Biblical Literalism and Truth

We cannot say: creation or evolution.  The proper way of putting it is: creation and evolution, inasmuch as these two things correspond to two different realities.  The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, which we just heard, does not explain how a human person comes to be but rather what he is.  It explains his inmost origin and casts light on the project that he is.  And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments.  But in so doing it cannot explain where the "project" of the human person comes from, nor his  inner origin, nor his particular nature.  To that extent we are faced with two complementary — rather than mutually exclusive — realities.

—Pope Benedict XVI

In The Beginning (1986) page 65

I've spent the last few articles speaking of attacks on Christianity from without.  Now I see I need to deal with one one of the attacks from within.  This is the area of Biblical Literalism which is being brought to my attention. It normally shows up under the topic of Creation vs. Evolution but the problem actually runs deeper than just the meaning of Genesis in the account of creation of the universe.

The approaches I have heard tend to be under the assumption that a literal reading of a Bible passage must be taken literally (often the Creation accounts of Genesis are literally true), and anyone who says otherwise is denying the teachings of the Bible or the Church.  This leaves people with the dilemma of either denying science or God… and it doesn't even have to be such a dilemma.

It is because of this sort of accusation that I am writing on the issue and not letting it lapse into obscurity.

The Problem With Literalism

To be blunt, this is a gross misunderstanding of what it is to be true, and tends to be brought on by a reading of the Scripture in English without an understanding of the nuances of the original languages combined with the personal interpretation of Scriptures.

Biblical Literalism tends to make personal interpretation of what is literally true the over-all authority, and tends to be threatened by views which attack this personal interpretation, confusing the attack on this personal interpretation with an attack on the Bible.

Some Boundaries to Keep In Mind

What we first have to distinguish is the difference between truth and genre which truth appears in.  The Bible has books of history, books of law, books of prophecy, books of praise, moral discussions and other genres as well.  We need to know the genre of the book in Scripture in order to understand how to read it.  A book of the prophets is not written with the same intent as, say, 2 Samuel.  The Book of Lamentations is not written with the same intent as the Book of Leviticus.

You read History as history, Law as law and so on, not Law as history or History as poetry.

This requires study of course, though this study needs to respect the fact that we believe the Books of Scripture to be Divinely inspired and Inerrant.  This means we don't say, for example, that the Psalms are inaccurate because the stylized writing does not measure up to what happened to King David when he was pursued by foes.

Unfortunately most Literalists tend to forget this.

The Problem With Literalism

Imagine if you will, a society which decides to live accordance with a certain book of law which is discovered, but does not have an understanding of the background and meaning and context at the time when the book was originally written.  How probable is it that such an application of this theoretical book of law will match up with what those who wrote the laws in it intended?  The book still has to be interpreted as to what it means, and disagreements come from those who interpret differently.

This is the problem with Biblical Literalism.  If it is based on the interpretation of the reader who takes it literally, the conclusions drawn will be flawed if the original understanding is flawed, and a challenge to the interpretation is seen as a challenge to the Scripture itself.

Catholic and Non-Catholic Literalists

Non Catholic Literalists tend to deny any sort of authority outside of the Bible, and try to interpret it literally to the best of their understanding.  Catholic literalists tend to take the Bible literally as well, and to take Church documents literally as well… to the best of their understanding.  The problem is, if there is an error in what one thinks is the meaning, the conclusions will be thrown off.

The Problems: False Dilemma and the Lack of an Exclusionary Premise

There are two forms of argument the Literalist uses.  One is logically invalid.  The other is valid but begs the question

The common invalid form runs along these lines

  1. If you are a [Literalist] you [Believe the Bible is Inerrant] (If [P] then [Q])
  2. You are not a [Literalist] (Not [P])
  3. Therefore you do not [believe the Bible is Inerrant] (Therefore Not [Q])

The problem is, people can [believe the Bible is inerrant] and not believe everything in it was intended to have a [literal meaning] (for a silly example, Jesus saying "I am the Vine" does not mean we need to mulch Him).

The valid form some Literalists use often runs along these lines:

  1. The Bible is either [Literal] or [Allegorical] (Either [P] or [Q])
  2. My Opponent does not believe the Bible is to be taken [Literally] (Not [P])
  3. Therefore my opponent believes the Bible is [Allegorical] (Therefore [Q])

Even though valid in form, the argument has a problem.  It assumes that the situations can only be [P] or [Q], with no other choice.  If another option is available (Option [R] for example) or it is not an "All or nothing" situation in "Some [P] or Some [Q]" or even "Some [P] and Some [Q]"  (that is, some parts of the Bible are reporting history and others using symbolic language) then the first premise is false and the conclusion is not proven.

These are conditions the Literalist does not consider.

The Unproven Assumption

What is assumed with the Literalist perspective is that their reading of the Bible is correct and any other perspective on reading the Bible is wrong.  It would be a harmless thing for the most part, except it strays into categories the Literalist is not qualified to make judgment on.  Whether it is a Young Earth Creationist arguing that the Earth must be 6,000 years old more or less or whether it Robert Sungenis arguing that the Earth must be in the center of the universe, the assumption is when the Literalistic reading of the Bible appears to be contradicted by science, then Science must be wrong because Scripture cannot be wrong.

The argument possesses the error of Affirming the Disjunct:

  1. Either [The Bible] is true or [Science] is true (Either [P] or [Q])
  2. [The Bible] is true ([P])
  3. Therefore [Science] is not true (Therefore Not [Q])

However it confuses the interpretation of the Bible with the Bible itself.  The Interpretation is the Bible intended to formally teach the Earth is the center of the universe (As Sungenis holds) or that the Earth is 6,000 years old (as Young Earth Creationists hold).

Sure, Scientists can Err, but is it Reasonable to Say They Got it Entirely Wrong?

[Now for some boring technical discussions of science.  Please bear with me, because one of the problems with Literalism is a tendency not to understand science.  (The other is, ironically, not understanding scripture either).]

Now that we looked at the problems with the logic of the Literalist arguments, we need to also ask questions about whether their allegations are true but just not expressed logically (as an invalid syllogism doesn't mean the conclusion is necessarily false, but it means the syllogism cannot prove it true).

So what are we to say about people who insist on Young Earth Creationism or Geocentrism?

The problem is, in order for their interpretations of Scripture to be correct, it's not just that Science made an error in calculation or in an assumption.  It means that Science has to be dead wrong in things it has observed. 

Geocentrism, to be true means, that light has to either move faster than the 186,000 miles/second or that Stars are closer to us than we think.  The problem is we have references in our own solar system.  We know what the distances are from other planets to earth.  We know the speed it takes for radio messages to reach probes from Earth (I seem to recall that for the outer planets some probes took two hours to respond to changes, and data sent from the probes took two hours to reach Earth).  If we know the speed of light and we know how long it takes to receive and send data to a probe out near Neptune, we can reason how far away this probe is.  If it took Voyager 2 twelve years to reach Neptune (Launched 1977, reached Neptune in 1989), it stands to reason that Science could not be wildly inaccurate to plot a course to anticipate where Neptune would be twelve years after launch… especially if the Scientists were supposed to be wrong in assuming Heliocentrism.

Now I like to quote St. Thomas Aquinas' maxim and will do so again here… "Parvus error in initio magnus erit in fine" (“Small error in the beginning; large [error] will be in the end”).  Errors in assumptions with astronomical distances tend to mean that if you are a few degrees off in your calculations, it may not be much deviation in travelling 20 feet, but if you are off a few degrees and the distance of travel is 2,829,691,159.88 miles (the distance to Neptune), such a difference becomes a vast distance.

Let's not even get started on how fast the outer universe would have to move to orbit the earth.  Occam's Razor is a good tool here.  We ought not to multiply causes unnecessarily.  When geocentrism has to explain retrograde movement, and why we can't detect the shifts which indicate the direction and speed a star is moving, the theory needs to be evaluated.

[The Geocentrism example may seem like a joke but it is not.  Robert Sungenis tries to argue Copernicus and Galileo were wrong about Heliocentrism, and some people actually believe this.  In his attempt to defend the Church at the time of Galileo, he puts himself in conflict with the Church today]

Likewise, in evolution, we are able to learn about things like the formation of rock, about the decay of carbon 14 in living things and so on.  Now of course it is limited in what it can do (it can't tell us the skeleton was of a man who died on June 6th 1426 at 10:17 am) but it can give us a general idea of how long it has been.  In a living creature the ratio of Carbon 12 to Carbon 14, the ratio stays stable.  Once the creature dies, the carbon 14 begins to decay and by comparing ratios, we can get a sense of how old a thing can be. This doesn't work on things never alive to begin with, and there has to be some matter to work with.  It is also only effective up to 60,000 years of age (though other isotopes can take us beyond this).

Literalists tend to object to the Carbon 14 dating because they claim "we can't know if the rate of decay is constant or not." The problem with such an objection is that we would need to investigate whether such a variability is so drastic as to throw off accuracy by ten thousand years or more.  However the argument of the Literalist is an Argument from Silence: There is no proof it stays constant, so it means it doesn't prove anything.

Again, if science so completely missed the boat as the Literalists claim, to be off by a magnitude of 1000 times, then it is not unreasonable to ask for the proof that such a variation of decay exists, because if such a variation could be established, it would make the method worthless.

The Dangers of Literalism

Pope John Paul II said in 1996 that "Truth cannot contradict truth."  However the Literalist has to essentially assert that Science must be entirely false when it dates the world to 4.7 billion years of age and says the Earth orbits the Sun.

The literalist argues he is protecting the "inerrancy" of the Bible, but in fact he is holding it up to ridicule.  Skeptics who take the literalist at its word point to the Bible and point to Science and says the Bible cannot be at all true.  The Literalist says the skeptic does not have faith (which is true), but the faith the Literalist demands is faith in their own interpretation of Scripture.  A look at St. Augustine's City of God (See books 15-16) takes the genealogies of Scripture prior to the Flood and points out that it does not follow that these ancient lines were talking about all the children born, or even first born children born, to a mentioned man, when it could mean that the Scriptures were talking about prominent children.

Because of this, the Literalist view provides a stumbling block for someone who understands science and thinks Christianity must be in contradiction to it.  Atheists assume we are fools, and intellectuals think they have to stop thinking to become Christians.

In a sense, the Literalists become a stumbling block when it comes to bringing the faith to the world.

The Wisdom of St. Robert Bellarmine

St. Robert Bellarmine was a cardinal at the time of the Galileo controversy.  He admitted he did not believe the earth orbited the sun (at the time it was a theory and not yet established as more than that), but he also realized that if it were proven so and because Scripture were inerrant, it would mean a misunderstanding of what Scripture meant, not that Scripture erred.  He wrote:

…I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun was in the center of the universe and the earth in the third sphere, and that the sun did not travel around the earth but the earth circled the sun, then it would be necessary to proceed with great caution in explaining the passages of Scripture which seemed contrary, and we would rather have to say that we did not understand them than to say that something was false which has been demonstrated.

The Church recognizes that the idea of the Earth orbiting the sun has been demonstrated, but Sungenis and followers (as well as Young Earth Creationists) ignore Bellarmine's wisdom.  Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have expressed a belief in evolution… guided by God… and Pope Pius XII had laid down the differences between what one could believe in regards to evolution to what one could not believe.

Yet the Literalists insist that what was demonstrated was false and refuse to consider the possibility that they do not understand what Scripture means.  They insist all Christians accept their views or they are no Christians at all.

That takes a special kind of arrogance.

It Comes Down to Pride… or Lack of Faith

What are we to make of those who insist that dinosaurs coexisted with human beings and those that say that dinosaurs skeletons are here to test faith (and how do they reconcile that claim with Numbers 23:19)?   How do we assess those who believe that the universe must revolve around the Earth?  What do we think of those who claim that Science must be wrong because it goes against their view of the Bible?

Especially what are we to think of a view which calls those who disagree with them "heretics"?

Ultimately their view is one of either pride, in refusing to consider they are the ones who err, or else in a lack of faith which assumes that if the Bible does not match up to their understanding, it must be wrong.

Ironically such people are the opposite side of the coin from the so-called "New Atheists."  Both tend to assume a literal meaning of the Bible.  The Biblical Literalists accept the Bible as literally true and accept it.  The New Atheist assumes it is to be understood as literally true and rejects it.

Neither considers the possibility of their own error in understanding Scripture.

A Personal Example

Back in the early 1990s, I assumed cloning would never happen (I was dabbling around with the idea of doing a sort of Science Fiction novel in case you are wondering why I was assuming this) because all life was from God, and life would not be created apart from God.  Then in 1996, we got news of Dolly the Sheep, and this caused me to think.  Clearly Dolly was not fraudulent.  So was the Christian faith fraudulent?  I had not yet read St. Robert Bellarmine, but the answer I reached was close to what he said: I recognized that it was quite possible I misunderstood what God would do.

Fourteen years and a degree later I now know I made two errors back then.  First, the belief that cloning was the creation of life out of non-living matter.  Second, that I had a false idea about God's permissive will versus the free will of man.  These two errors of mine led me to believe cloning would be impossible.  If I hadn't considered the possibility I misunderstood the nature of God I would either have had to deny the existence of Dolly or deny the existence of God.

Recognizing the possibility of my own error saved me from making a greater one.


Not all people who believe in Creationism are Literalists in the negative sense.  However, many forget the Church does not insist we only accept Creationism or only accept Evolution.  The Church does require us to believe all creation comes from God and rejects the idea that anything exists apart from God.  We are required to believe God creates the soul directly (it does not "evolve.")

However, Biblical Literalism is a belief which mistakes a personal interpretation of the Bible for the Bible.

We would all be wise to remember that while the Bible is inerrant, personal interpretations are not.

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